A24 is quietly killing it. Do people realize how many of the greatest films of the 2010’s this New York-based distribution company has financed? None of their films make an enormous amount of money — the few that have done huge numbers include “Ex Machina,” my favorite film of 2015, and the critically acclaimed Amy Winehouse doc “Amy” — but almost all of them are innovative and excellent. You have them to thank for “The Spectacular Now,” “Obvious Child,” “Under the Skin,” “The End of the Tour” and “Room.”
And now we have “The Witch,” a tiny-budget period horror film with a brand-new writer/director attached (Robert Eggers). Stuck somewhere between “The Shining” and “Evil Dead,” this is a brutal, tension-filled exploration of Christian guilt so uncomfortable and disturbing that it made two couples sitting in front of me get up and exit the theater 10 minutes in. I didn’t blame them for leaving. This is a tremendous film that continues A24’s streak of high quality releases, but it’s not for everyone.
“The Witch” is as much about a time and a place as it is about a situation. The film takes us back to primitive America, where surviving each winter was not a guarantee. Today, we dull our fear of death with science and comfort, but the harsh wilderness of 17th century New England lacked both of those luxuries. Instead, the God-fearing puritans relied on devout Christianity to make sense of their harsh existence. In their world, heaven and hell are unquestionably real, as are evils that lurk in the woods.
In an inversion of the classic “don’t show the monster until the end” Spielberg routine, we see the witch right away. We’re talking classic witch in the woods here — this is a gross, wrinkly baby-devouring witch. She’s not misunderstood. She’s a fucking evil witch, and she’s scary and ugly and hangs with the devil. Her purpose? To torture a family of excommunicated Christians, struggling to make ends meet on a thatched-roof farm.
The heart of the film’s dread is a youthful fear embodied in some of the best performances by children I’ve ever seen in a film. Newcomers Anya Taylor-Joy and Harvey Scrimshaw bring us back to that primal emotional experience we had after lying to our mothers or stealing an extra cookie after dinner — that feeling, lingering for just a few minutes, that our dishonesty might make us burn in hell forever. As the family descends into religious hysteria, we see the terrifying implications of how the dogmatic belief of the parents impacts their children.
The power of these scenes would not be as effective were it not for Eggers’s strict adherence to period social customs and manners of speech. Even more impressive is the actors’s delivery of said speech, so believable that the dialogue maintains a strict separation from our contemporary reality, but so emotional that we can’t help but empathize with the family’s horrifying plight.
While it does drag around its midpoint, “The Witch” quickly maintains pace as slow-burn symphony of familial tension that ends in an electrifying coda. Adhering to the formalist school of Bergman and Kubrick, Eggers and his editor (newcomer Louise Ford) have shaped a thriller that is structurally compelling and nuanced.
It’s wonderful to see so much new, hungry talent getting the platform they deserve. Films like “The Witch” shouldn’t exist, financially speaking. They’re heavily niche products that don’t make a lot of money. But thanks to mid-tier distributors like A24, cinema can once again exist between the blockbuster and the no-budget indie. We need more movies like “The Witch.”